When I began to read and collect zines I kept one or two in my backpack. Soon they sat in neat piles on my desk, and in a matter of weeks they haphazardly slouched out of shoeboxes. Now these self-made independent periodicals burst through bags and bins in every room of my apartment, unwilling to be contained in the literal as well as figurative sense. One local zinester donated a part of his collection to the Minneapolis Community and Technical College library, twenty boxes strong. What is a zine and how do they engage readers in a way that traditional literature does not and cannot?
An abbreviated form of fanzine and pronounced like the last syllable of magazine, zines are created apart from mainstream media. According to Broken Pencil, Canada’s premiere zine review/alternative culture resource, a zine is characterized by “its dedication to the independent transference of thought on a non-commercial basis.” For this reason, zines are usually sold and produced for a nominal amount. Though some zines feature advertisements, most are for bands on independent labels, zine distributers, or other zines. The 47th issue of the widely respected AND professionally printed Punk/Travel zine Cometbus featured a glossy cover and pricey perfect binding usually reserved for academic journals or well-funded college literary magazines; Cometbus is still only $2. Zines are a product of self-rule and represent rebellion against the commodified thought of most product-oriented and corporate-owned and controlled publications.
I recently presented a tattered, well-read assortment of zines to my graduate level pedagogy class for instructional classroom use, and their first question was “so what are these, just random publications?” In the sense that any person, despite their lack of wealth or talent could make one, I answered “yes.” What gives zinesters the idea and courage to enter a community discourse via stapled pamphlets and rubber-banded, hand-drawn comics? The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethic that historically predates even the zinesters greatest tool -the Xerox machine, is its driving force, and one reason zines are featured in The Twin Cities Green Guide. Though the letters DIY are generally associated with punk culture, it has evolved into the moniker to describe anyone who has created their own sustainable lifestyle out of either choice or necessity. Zines are a product of both, as they can take enormous effort and motivation and often use the most inexpensive printing methods possible.
The origin of zines is widely credited to comics, which may account for zines’ odd reception by the general public who see comics as either puerile Sunday funnies or geeky science fiction. The Comet (c. 1930) is credited as the first fanzine. Science fiction fans wanting a forum to discuss the stories they read created The Comet. Zines are also an affordable and less time-consuming way for cartoonists to promote their work and satiate their hungry fans. R. Lootine’s “comic for the morally impaired” Residue is featured in Pulses, was featured in The Minnesota Daily’s A & E section, and lives on in zine form.
The zine format is also ideal for spreading [the revolution] a revolutionary message. We find evidence of zines as far back as the 18th century. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense call to end the British Monarchy is probably the first example of rhetoric of resistance in zine form. In 1943 The White Rose, Hans and Sophie Scholl’s anti-Hitler organization, printed leaflets in their basements with a hand crank press, stole paper and envelopes, had to buy stamps places all over the city to avoid suspicion from S.S. officers. The 1960s were also rich time for protest writing. The free presses sprouting up around the country helped develop America’s strong newspaper history.
As the underrepresented raised their voices, specifically women among them, the activity was deemed a movement and it was named Riot Grrrl. Here women redefined feminism for the 1990s and recognized each other as manufacturers of culture as opposed to mere participants in the culture that is given to them. Ericka Bailie’s zine distribution business, Pander Zine Distro, raises the Riot Grrrl battle cry in its absolute effectiveness, representation, and style. It also raises the bar for distributors of independent media to consider more carefully the quality and kind of works they represent.
Furthering the connection between dissidence and music, students from the school of visual arts in NY founded Punk in 1976 and chronicled CBGBs. Also Sniffin’ Glue made a name in the UK around the same time. These days, a biography of a band from the UK in the late 70s cannot be published without images, interviews, and information credited to Sniffin’ Glue.
The intellectual history of zines, however, is not the whole story. Chester Carlson scored a patent for Xerox in 1939 and began the love affair between the zinester and the tool of the trade. One zinester mentioned that the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for her was to buy her a photocopier. It wasn’t until the 1970s that most of us had access to them. But now that there is a Kinko’s on every corner, a copier at every temp job, and a disgruntled temp worker at every temp job, it is unlikely that the number of zines in circulation will see an end. The copier brought speed and accessibility to a cultural history of resistance and self-reliance. What naturally followed was a rise of control over the written word and published material. Zines are proof that the means of production and distribution can exist in the hands of the people and that we now have more resources and power to make our culture than ever before.
Zine culture is changing. With the rapid growth of digital culture, zines have made a curious transition to the web, which has perhaps breathed new life into a very old idea. Currently, one heated debate among zinesters is whether a zine has the same impact once it appears on the glowing screen. Other zines have reached a level of popularity to garner a large following, most notably Clamor and Punk Planet. But while these magazines make their way to the racks of Barnes and Noble, it seems there will always be the teenage girl cutting and pasting, copying and distributing, finding her niche in the colorful underground publishing world.
Where To Find Zines:
Minneapolis Public Library
Alternative Press Collection
Minneapolis Community College
Arise Bookstore and Resource Center
Extreme Noise Records
Big Brain Comics
AK Press www.akpress.org
Stickfigure Distro www.stickfiguredistro.com
Echo Zine Distro www.geocities.com/echozinedistro
Frida Loves Diego http://www.geocities.com/oddviolet28/index.html